Expert dialogue on the future of the EU in Beijing and Shanghai

Event: Regional and International Affairs

During their visit in Beijing from May 15th to May 17th, Dr Uwe Optenhögel and Paul F. Nemitz gave lectures during expert discussions at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) and at the International Department of the Communist Party of China (IDCPC).

On May 16th, Dr Uwe Optenhögel and Paul F. Nemitz participated in a discussion meeting at CICIR titled The future of the EU and EU-China relations and the risks caused by populism for the West and Asia headed by Prof Feng Zhongping, Vice President of CICIR. Scholars from the Institute of European Studies of CICIR, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), the China Institutes of International Studies (CIIS) and the China University of Political Science and Law (CUPL) were present. The discussion meeting was subdivided into three sessions: The future of the EU integration, The EU’s External Relations and The rise of Populism in Europe.

During their presentations in the first session, the experts from China and the EU underlined that they were relieved with respect to the outcome of the French Presidential election. Apart from that, the Chinese experts expressed their hope that the EU could solve its crises. However, Dr Uwe Optenhögel stated that from his point of view one cannot speak of a crisis in the EU, as the term challenge is rather appropriate. Furthermore, he also underlined that in other regions of the world (the United States, Northeast Asia etc.) there exist huge challenges as well.

In Panel II the experts discussed the EU’s external relations. Chinese and European experts agreed that new uncertainties influence the existing multilateral global order and bear the risk of a rise of unilateralism. Concerning the EU, this tendency can especially be observed by the fact that when the European Security Strategy (ESS) was issued in 2003 the EU was surrounded by a rather security-friendly environment. At the point of release of the EU’s global strategy in 2016, the EU was however surrounded by a “ring of fire”. This tendency will obviously affect the foreign policy of the EU inasmuch as it faces the dilemma to operate between the poles of principles and pragmatism. However, as other foreign policy stakeholders also face this dilemma, there exists a new incentive for new solutions and thus common ground for cooperation. The two sides agreed that this new situation also offered new areas of cooperation between China and the EU. The European side also carefully offered the prediction that the new world order could strengthen the EU’s role as a military player in the global context.

Apart from that, the experts also had a frank and long discussion on the question whether the format “16+1” may be able to split the European Union.

In the last session, the experts exchanged their views on the risks caused by populism for the West and Asia. The experts agreed that due to the low performance of populist movements in the US and in Great Britain and the victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French Presidential election, the danger of populism may have been averted in the short-term. However, especially the European side underlined that the danger of populism still exists in the long-term. Dr Uwe Optenhögel shared his analysis that to fight populism, one has to provide economic and identity-wise offers to the groups within society that feel neglected. Furthermore, the EU has to produce benefits for every country within the Union.


On May 17th, the two experts from Germany participated in the discussion meeting The future of the EU and the risks caused by populism at IDCPC which was headed by Zhao Fei, Head of department of the department for Western Europe at IDCPC.

Dr Uwe Optenhögel and Paul F. Nemitz initially gave short inputs on the current shape of the EU and challenges of European integration and on the European foreign and security policy and the EU as a global player.

During his speech on the current shape of the EU, Paul F. Nemitz emphasised that one has to contain populists through law, as populists question the rule of law. During his speech on foreign policy, Dr Uwe Optenhögel underlined that in today’s world strength was not so much defined by military strength any more, but by economic and soft power. Additionally, he was convinced that, against the background of the new world order there exist new possibilities for cooperation between China and the EU.

During the following discussion, the Chinese experts showed a strong interest in the question how to fight populism and also in the future of centre-left and social democratic parties in Europe.


From May 18 to 19, Mr. Optenhögel was joined in Shanghai by Steven Blockmans from the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies (CEPS). There, they attended two symposiums at the Shanghai People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (SPAFFC, chaired by Vice-President Jing Ying) and the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS, chaired by President Prof Chen Dongxiao).

During these meetings, Mr. Blockmans gave a presentation on the “Current Shape of the EU and challenges to European Integration” in which he gave an overview of the several current crises of the EU (“poly-crisis” in the words of Jean-Claude Juncker): economic and financial crisis (since 2008), the turmoil in the neighbourhood (since 2011), the influx of refugees and Brexit. He also mentioned other more low-key issues such as the increasing tensions with the Polish and Hungarian governments and the EU over constitutional and rule-of-law matters as well as the corruption-related crisis in e.g. Romania.

Some of the Chinese participants raised concerns about continuing and deep-rooted problems of the EU and the Eurozone in particular, the new momentum of the EU following Brexit and the defeat of populist candidates in the Netherlands and France notwithstanding. To overcome the structural crises of the EU, the European Commission should present a clearer vision than the five scenarios recently put forth by Juncker and Germany should become less inward-looking and assume more responsibility. Still, the EU continued to be the world’s foremost example for regional integration and offered a lot of examples for other regions such as East Asia opined one of the participants. Asked about his opinion regarding the most likely scenario for the EU’s development, Mr. Blockmans answered that “muddling-through” was inevitable in the short term due to the various elections, but that the start of Brexit negotiations would bring with it a renewed push for Treaty Reform and therefore an opportunity for addressing some of the problems currently plaguing the EU.

The participants also discussed possible progress to the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy given that Britain will leave the EU and Trump’s rather reluctant support of NATO. Mr. Uwe Optenhögel was cautiously optimistic that there would be increased cooperation in defence procurement policies, translating into higher efficiency and effectiveness.

The third major topic was the rise of populism in Europe and the USA. Mr. Optenhögel stressed that most of the so-called populist movements seen in Europe and the USA could in fact better be characterised as nationalistic due to their anti-globalisation and protectionist stance and because their emphasis on identity politics, blaming economic problems on immigrants and other countries like China. This was compounded by the fact that many mainstream political parties had become more similar to each other programmatically, creating the impression that they were all the same, which provided the argumentative fodder to the populists to incite anti-establishment feelings among voters.

Finally, the participants expressed their hope that cooperation and free trade between the EU and China would not be impacted in the long term by Brexit and populist tendencies in the EU. Both sides agreed however that serious reform was needed, not only on the EU level but also in core EU member states.


Go back